Pitching for, and winning, new business is not an exact science. Those of us involved in it know there are no set rules, no silver bullet on which the agency's name can be engraved. Perhaps because of this, the way agencies approach new-business pitching is fascinating to observe. Equally, so is watching client reaction to the different strategies and tactics adopted by agencies.
There are three models agencies operate with when pitching:
- The Murder Investigation Strategy
- Slowly, Slowly Catchy Monkey
- Middle-Distance Racing
1. The Murder Investigation Strategy
As anyone familiar with popular TV crime drama knows, the key period for solving a murder is the first 48 hours - and some agencies adopt a similar tactic to pitching for new business.
A small team, usually of senior talent that is familiar with each other, will address the challenge presented in the brief in a focused manner. Strategy, target audience insight and understanding, hypotheses and creative options are quickly considered, debated and discarded. There's often an overlap in roles and contributions to the debate to the point of a complete blurring of lines between planners, suits and creatives.
Decisions are made from experience, intuition, a gut feeling and a (self-) belief in what's right for the brief. This is where the role of a new-business director can be key, as they can bring cumulative experience to the pitch table, as well as a detached perspective, looking at it all through the client's eyes.
Having agreed a direction and way forward throughout the rest of the pitch, the agency's strategy is to hone and refine the direction agreed upon in the first 48 hours.
The appeal for clients of such an approach is that, as long as they like the idea, they become engaged with the agency and its idea early on, and there's a sense of the agency having "cracked the brief" and stolen a march on the competition.
The challenge of this strategy is maintaining the positive momentum and energy achieved in the first few days of the pitch throughout the remainder of it, often across a couple of months and (this is the tricky bit) all in comparison with other pitching agencies' progress.
Client sentiment can swing from this agency being their favourite at the end of the first week of the pitch to being seen as having run out of steam with nothing new to add come the final presentation.
The impact that the idea first had is diluted over time to such an extent that the client forgets how favourably they thought of it in the first place.
2. Slowly, Slowly Catchy Monkey
The "slowly, slowly" strategy is much more measured in its approach and delivery. Each element of the pitch is given due attention and consideration by the agency, building on what has been developed previously.
Insight is offered in the RFI, built upon in the chemistry meeting, options developed for the tissue session, favoured routes selected for research leading up to the final presentation, and then the agency's final recommendation is presented to a fully expectant client audience who know what's "behind the curtain" because they've seen the infant idea grow to maturity in the space of a few weeks.
Agencies that adopt this tactic have the reassurance that the client has given their tacit approval every step of the way. Indeed, there's a sense of shared ownership of the idea, and hence shared responsibility. No client is going to say no to a recommendation in which they have been so intimately involved, are they?
But, of course, sometimes they do say no. In the post-pitch discussions that the client has among themselves, they can translate assuredness as dullness, measured progress as predictability and the agency's creative originality as a belief that they, the client, practically gave the agency the idea and all the agency did was to repackage it and claim exclusive origination.
3. Middle-Distance Racing
The third model is when, across the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the pitch, the client's belief - based on what has been presented to them by the agency - is that the agency has nothing, is off the pace and the client can't see it winning come the final presentation.
In such circumstances, I have been asked whether the agency should be stood down before the final presentation as, from the client's perspective, it "doesn't stand a chance".
I have to share this sage advice: no-one wins a 1,500-metre race at 1,000 metres.
For, on more than one occasion at the 1,000-metre point in the pitch, the very same agencies that are least-favoured and appear to be going backwards relative to the competition can end up crossing the finishing line first - and often by some distance. How can this be?
My observation is that, at such agencies, the creative idea is the dominant driving force and it's through the power of the creative idea that the client's objectives can be delivered.
This is not to say that clients' commercial imperative does not play its part, but the "process" of developing powerful creative ideas within such agencies does not adhere to the ordered programme a pitch will often follow. Such creative inspiration cannot be delivered simply because there's a tissue meeting scheduled.
Clients have to hold their nerve when faced with such an agency, and it can be hard to do so based on the agency's "trust us, we know what we're doing" attitude, even with reassurances from the AAR.
For while the lead marketing client might be "up for it", this might be too much for their boss, who's not one for surprises - pleasant or otherwise.
All being well, the agency will present an idea that blows all others out of the water, wowing the client team and winning the day.
But clients will ask "Is this how it's going to be?", assuming that business as usual is delivered in the same way as how they have experienced the agency pitch. They may not have the stomach for the white-knuckle ride that is the creative journey every time a new campaign is required.
So, what is to be concluded from this?
For clients, my advice is to use the pitch to decide on the most appropriate agency with which you want to develop a strong and long-standing working relationship. We all recognise that a pitch doesn't truly reflect what it's like to work with an agency, but it is a chance to gain an insight into agencies' different working practices and styles.
From an agency's perspective, be aware of the style of pitching you deliver and what sort of client you are pitching to; then take appropriate measures to manage client expectations throughout the pitch.
Agencies shouldn't underestimate the importance of rehearsing. Don't spend the last couple of days trying to perfect the last 10 per cent at the expense of rehearsing the 90 per cent you're confident is right.
A client's mindset in the final pitch presentation is much more Dragons' Den than The X Factor: it doesn't need to be perfect, but passion, authenticity and self- belief can count for a great deal.
Never forget that, in the end, pitching is about winning. Unlike most races, you won't get a silver medal for coming second.
Paul Phillips is the managing director of the AAR.